Palm Sunday musings

Palm Sunday.

As we remember the ‘triumphant entry’ of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, I began to wonder afresh what the Jews of that time were expecting Messiah to look like. They were celebrating his arrival, waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna’, and yet somehow seemed to have missed who He was and what His mission was entirely. 

Jews today still wait for Messiah to arrive. 

What or who are they looking for? Did they simply not notice, or were they blinded to the truth so they didn’t try to stop events?

I headed to a website that described what Jews believe about Messiah and what sort of attributes He would have.  I found it fascinating that the majority of the things are clearly already fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

They say that Messiah will be a ‘child who grows up to rule in peace.’ 

Jesus was the Prince of Peace. He gives us peace that surpasses understanding. I know that I can testify to encountering that peace, while in the midst of personal storm I have felt a peace that doesn’t make any sense.

They say that he will be a skilled judge and will be a descendent of King David. 

Matthew 1 lists the genealogy of Jesus, clearly showing His lineage back to David and beyond. There is no doubt of His pedigree in that respect. His judgements were like nothing that had ever been heard before. There were two types of Rabbi – those that followed after the teaching of a previous Rabbi, and those that had authority to interpret scripture. Jesus clearly had the authority to interpret scripture. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Him, those watching on knew what the traditional interpretation of the law was and were eager for an opportunity to trip Him up. Jesus also knew the law but knew that there was far more to it than had been originally interpreted.

They say that Messiah will be a great warrior. Now, that one is perhaps a little harder to see fulfilled, certainly on Palm Sunday. It wasn’t until a week later that Jesus would fight His greatest battle – and win. The war He was fighting was against the effects of the enemy in people’s lives. He cast out demons, He raised the dead to life, He healed the sick. The Jews were looking for someone who was going to come and over-throw the Romans and give them back their nation. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, He turned towards the Temple, rather than towards the palace. It became clear to those who knew their scriptures, that this was to be no rebellion and uprising.

The website went on to suggest that the arrival of Messiah depended on the people Israel. If Israel merited a Messiah, He would appear on the clouds. If not, He would arrive on a donkey. Perhaps they were so convinced that they were doing the right thing, that they were obeying everything that Moses had commanded them, that they were already righteous enough to merit a Messiah coming on the clouds. They missed the fact that Jesus wept for them, and for Jerusalem. He could see that theirs was an empty religion, in desperate need of a Saviour. He rode in on a donkey to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah yes, but also to declare to the Jews that it was time to realise their need of relationship with the God who had chosen them centuries previously. 

They believed that the Messiah would come as a blighted beggar. Jesus himself said that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. He didn’t sit at the gates of the city and ask for alms as the beggar who was later healed by Peter and John, but he didn’t come from a well to do family with riches. He didn’t have a foot on the 1st century property ladder. He slept where He could, in the homes of those who believed who He was.

The Messiah was to be a successful philosopher. From the age of 12, we know that Jesus was able to confound the teachers of the Law with His knowledge of scripture. He spent so long in the temple in Jerusalem at that time that His earthly parents lost Him. He answered questions with questions and tied them up in knots. 

I think for me the one that is closest to my heart is that they believed that the Messiah was to be “waiting for us, among those who need healing.”  The gospels are full of stories telling us that Jesus healed each and every one who came to Him for healing. Others He went out of His way to find and heal (think of the man at the pool of Bethesda). Others were healed with a word, some He touched. Each time, He was filled with compassion for them and brought the Kingdom of Heaven near to where they were. 

So close that they could reach out and touch it.

I am so grateful that there were some there on that first Palm Sunday who did see Jesus for who He was. The read the signs and believed. Without them, I would never have found out about the man who was God, who gave up everything for me. The one who suffered the most brutal death imaginable in my place, is the one whose resurrection we will celebrate in a weeks’ time.

I pray that unlike the majority of those who were there, you will see the signs, that you will open your heart, and that you will allow the One who suffered for you, a place in your life today. 

Worth a second look?

We are about to celebrate perhaps the most important of events in history. As we head into one of the most familiar stories of the Christian faith, I wanted to look at some of the events that perhaps we have simply skimmed over in the past, or perhaps even pre-judged following years of assuming things about the story. 

We live in days of 24/7 news. There are frequently reports of things that are due to be said, before they ever cross the lips of those who are going to say them, and endless analysis it is difficult to look at this story with anything other than the lens of familiarity. When the news actually happens, we almost don’t hear it because it has already been reported as being about to happen. Nothing is new anymore.

It is very easy to view the Easter story with the same lens. We know how the Easter story ends, and therefore, even with the best of intentions our minds can skip quickly to the resurrection and the barbecue by the seaside. Part of that may well be that whilst we want to appreciate all that Christ went through for us on His way to the cross, we would rather not be bothered with the gruesome (and gruesome they are) details.

I wonder, if we have ever considered the crowd that gathered on Palm Sunday as anything but fickle and two faced?  One week they were shouting “Hosanna”, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There was a huge celebration. They recognised who Jesus was and what He had come to do. 

It is true that they were there for “the Feast”, but how had they found out about Jesus? Did they just suddenly appear, or had they been following Him around for a while?  We are familiar and comfortable with the disciples travelling around with Jesus. A nice relatively small group of men, following their Rabbi wherever He went, learning from Him, and trying to do what their Rabbi did. If we look a little further back in the gospel of John however, we find Jesus at the home of His friend Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus had died four days previously, and the Jewish period of mourning had well and truly begun. Extended family, friends and probably professional mourners had gathered to help the sisters in their time of grief. 

As Jesus stopped at the tomb of Lazarus, a large group had gathered, primarily to support Mary and Martha. They were only too aware of what was behind the stone of the tomb. When the man who they knew had died walked out, they were now very aware of who Jesus was, and the power that He had. A miracle, and they became followers of Jesus too. That isn’t something we should be surprised about really. Jesus himself taught that a demonstration of heaven was to be expected. Show them, then explain to them what its all about was his modus operandi. This crowd (for that is what John records it was) followed Jesus to Jerusalem, and freely and excitedly called to all who were in earshot “Hosanna – He saves”

A week later, we are expected to believe that they were crying for His blood? That is what I read and accepted for decades, without question. The more I think about it though, the more I wonder if it was the same crowd. 

Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. This feast was to commemorate the meal that was eaten just before the Israelites left Egypt. It reminded them that the Angel of the Lord had passed over their dwellings. When one looks in details at this feast and all it involves, one can start to appreciate what actually happened on that first ‘Good Friday’. 

The meal follows lots of readings from the Torah, and many prayers. For most of these proceedings, those taking part have had nothing to eat, save some bitter herbs dipped in horseradish. Towards the end, as the candlelight begins to dim, a meat or fish course is served, with bread, and at least (because there are still prayers and scriptures) four cups of wine. I know how I feel after a large meal, and especially if I have consumed even one glass of wine, let alone four. All I want is to slip of to the sofa and close my eyes. Even more so if the meal doesn’t finish until well into the small hours of the next day.

And this is where we meet another group of people who get a bad press at Easter. Peter, James and John were asked by Jesus to stay awake and keep guard, yet they fell asleep, not once but three times. If you consider that they too had just finished the Passover meal with Jesus, and were full tired, perhaps it is a little more understandable why they were struggling.

We know the next part of the story well. A night-time trial, and sentence followed. A crowd baying for Jesus to be crucified, and for Barabbas to be freed. Could this really be the same crowd that were shouting Hosanna? 

I want to suggest that it wasn’t. The chances are that this crowd was made up of the Sadducees, and their followers. Those that had heralded the entry of Jesus a week before, were still in bed, following the Passover meal. They were shocked to see Jesus, beaten and bloodied, carrying a cross towards a hill outside the city. Those who had cried for His death, had no desire to keep the law in this instance. All they were concerned with was getting rid of the man who was threatening to challenge their status as leaders.

I think this raises an important question about the crowds who saw the miracle of Lazarus and believed and followed Jesus. Just a chapter later, in John 12, we read that even after Jesus had done “all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him”. What was the difference in the two groups of people? Why did one group see and believe, and one see and still not believe? I think that certainly with the second group, they had already made up their minds about what was acceptable. They had very clear ideas about how the Messiah was going to appear, what He was going to do, and how He was going to act. Jesus challenged all of these convictions with both His actions and speech. They were so convinced that they were right, that nothing other than that could possibly be from God. Have we so boxed God up that we are not prepared to allow Him space to be God? That may be in our church meetings, our homes or in our lives individually.  We need to remember that He is God and we are not. As a friend of mine once said “It is God’s house, He is allowed to move the furniture if He wants to.”  Bill Johnson once said that “God will never contradict His word, but He has no problem at all with contradicting our interpretation of His Word.”  Let’s not be the ones who get in the way of others believing because of our preconceptions.

Finally, may I challenge you to read the story again, and consider the bits that you usually skim over. Try and put yourself in the story, as if you were there. What was it like for those that were there? How would you react, knowing what you do about the facts? 

Hope from Hopelessness

In this time of uncertainty I wanted to bring some encouragement to those that are feeling that God seems to have taken a back seat, and doesn’t care about what is happening in the UK or the world at the moment.

Others of us are perhaps feeling a little guilty about saying we trust God, yet we are fastidiously taking the recommended precautions, and are worried that our witness to friends and family is suffering.

The thing is I am a scientist. I work in Microbiology, so I know a thing or two about viruses, and have read extensively about the SARS CoV-2 (coved-19) that is currently causing a worldwide pandemic, and global panic. I am also a person who is confident in the fact that God is in control, is able to wipe the virus out in a second, and who heals because He loves us.

How can I hold the two things together without compromising either?

I have long believed that it is far better to start with the solution to a problem that I have (in this case God) rather than problem – the virus.

I am determined not to be scared of Coronavirus. I am happy to treat it with respect, because I have seen what it is capable of, but I am not scared. I know that my God is bigger than anything that this virus is capable of.

I’ve seen lots of posts on social media and listened to people on television who are very fearful. Fear is real. I’ve posted about it before. It can be crippling if you choose to partner with it and agree with what it is telling you. It has been suggested that prolonged fear has a very real effect of weakening the immune system, which could also make us more susceptible to infection.

I saw a post recently that cautioned us not to hide our fears in the precautions we are taking. Following advice is wise, but pretending that we are not afraid because we are taking them is not.

Please understand that I am not suggesting for a second that we dispense with the precautions that science and the government is telling us is essential. It is vital that we take the steps to limit the spread of the virus. Without these steps, the stark reality is that lives will unnecessarily be lost if we refuse to take them.

My plea is that we continue to trust in God, not in the precautions.

We are reminded that we have not been given the Spirit of fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 says “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity or cowardice or fear, but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind and self-control]. (Amplified version)

The second thing I wanted to share I think is especially important to remember in the run up to Easter.

When Jesus was crucified, He was placed in a tomb. A large stone was rolled over the entrance. Everyone thought that was it. No matter what Jesus had said in the past about coming back (they had forgotten that He had promised that anyway), any hope that the Romans were going to be defeated and life improving were quickly discarded. There was no hope whatsoever.

God however had a different idea. From a place of hopelessness came hope. Death was defeated. The King arose.

The truth is that whilst we love the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, defeating death we can easily miss an important truth. God isn’t just the God of that tomb. He is the God of every tomb, of every hopeless situation. Whatever we face, God is God and He is able to bring us forth, out of a place of despair to one of joy and restoration.

I believe that it is time, with the number of cases of Coronavirus set to rise, as more and more fear and despair to grips the nation, for us to give the situation to God and allow Him to shape our thinking and priorities.

I also know that concern over infection with SARS-CoV-2 is not the only thing facing many folk at the moment. There are other giants in front of them, whether physical or mental health issues,  job insecurity or something else. Whatever is in front of you, whatever is filling your mind with worry may I encourage you to give it back to God and allow Him to breath life back into the situation. If you feel hopeless about what is going on, turn to the one who brings hope to the hopeless.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

Don’t live in fear

Even a quick glance at a news service these days, one cannot fail to notice that the world is descending into panic mode. From travel restrictions to self isolation and supermarkets sold out of toilet paper and hand sanitiser, people are turning to survival tactics in anticipation of Armageddon.

I heard it said recently that the most dangerous thing about Covid-19 was the media. I am not denying that people are dying, but if you watch the news or read a newspaper, you could be forgiven for thinking that 80% of the worlds population were heading in that direction imminently.

There is a fairly high chance that in the course of this “outbreak” you or someone you know will be infected. How serious that is for you will depend on a large number of factors, including age and any underlying medical conditions you may have. For the majority of people, the infection will pass like any other flu like illness or bad cold.

Media outlets have jumped on human instinct in a bid to sell more column inches or get higher ratings. They want to be the first in breaking a story, and once sales are up, they will do anything to keep them up. That means they will continue to perpetuate half truths and worst case scenarios in order to make sure people are engaged with them.

What they are doing is creating a culture of fear amongst people.

That is where I come across a problem as a Christian and a Scientist.

As a Scientist who works in the field of Microbiology, I have a pretty good understanding on how this virus spreads, and perhaps more importantly how it doesn’t. I know what is effective in protecting people from infection and what is just over precaution and pretty futile. As a scientist I am watching with interest how a virus is adapting and changing. I am trying to understand the guidelines produced by Governments, and health experts and ensure that I can translate that to my day to day working life.

As a Christian, I am resting firmly in the knowledge that God is in control and I don’t need to be concerned about having all the answers. At least 365 times in the bible, we are told not to be afraid (or words to that effect.) Any time an Angel pitches up the first thing they seem to say is “don’t be afraid.” 

God is not a God of confusion, panic or fear. He is a God of peace and sound thinking.

If we are experiencing fear over the current global situation, we can be sure that that emotion hasn’t come from heaven. It’s time to stand in the assurance that we have in Christ.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you. He will never leave you, nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”(John 14:27). “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God, I will strengthen you and help you….” (Isaiah 41:10). “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about you adoption to sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)

Fear is a liar. It will confuse and bring hurt. It cannot be trusted to bring good.

However difficult your situation is today, whatever you are worried about, be it Coronavirus or something else, may I encourage you to stop listening to the voice of fear, but to turn to the One certainty in all the confusion.

Ask Holy Spirit to bring calm, peace and a lightness to your situation, and allow Him to change your outlook how you react to whatever is being thrown at you.

Peace.

Make me pure

I stopped praying, so I hope this song will do, I wrote it all for you.

I’m not perfect, but you don’t mind that do you?

I know your there to pull me through, aren’t you?

These are some lyrics form a Robbie Williams song from 2005. The song is called “Pure” and also contains the lyric “Oh Lord, make me pure, but not yet.

When I heard it the other day, it got me thinking. I’m not convinced that Robbie is actually praying that line, but I wonder sometimes we Christians do. I know that we may not use these exact words, but sometimes that is what our actions say. I think we really do want God to make us pure, but we are not so keen on the change in lifestyle or attitude that would make the change complete. We want to be more like Jesus, but we must watch the latest TV programmes, regardless of the questionable moral standard they set. We say we want the homeless to be fed but think it’s the governments responsibility rather than ours.

I remember seeing a clip by “The Skit Guys” called God’s chisel. In it, one of the characters wanted to be changed by God, to become God’s masterpiece, but when God started to hammer and chisel some of the “issues” off of him, he asked God to stop because it hurt. He wanted all the benefit of being like Jesus but wasn’t prepared to change in order to get it. In the end, God asked him if he wanted to just talk about change or do something about it.

Another analogy I recall was that of the refiner’s fire. When gold is being purified, the refiner heats up the gold until it melts. At this point any impurities rise to the surface and can be scooped off and thrown away. The more times this process happens, the purer the gold becomes. The fact is that intense heat must be applied to make the change.  The same is true in our own lives. If we want to change, we have to be prepared for God to turn up the heat to the point where it is more than a little uncomfortable. The beauty of this is of course that we can trust Him not to turn up the heat to the point that we would be destroyed, only to get rid of the things that are making us impure.

I guess my challenge from all this is what are you holding on to that is stopping a transformation to purity? Is there anything that you know God wants to chisel off, not because He wants to hurt you or spoil your fun, but because He loves you and wants the best for you?

I can’t promise that there will not be pain in the process, but I can promise that He will not break you.

Will it be worth it – absolutely.

Jesus take the wheel

Many of you will be familiar with the phrase “Jesus take the wheel.” There are a couple of ways that I’ve heard it used. It is either a cry for guidance and help from the one who is able to direct us back on to the right path, either because we’ve drifted off the plan, or because we simply have no idea where we are going and want to take a break from making decisions for a while.

More commonly, I’ve heard it as a “tongue in cheek” expression of despair as things are going a bit wrong.

It seems to me that whether we use the expression itself or not, we all cry out to God at some point in our lives asking the same question.

When I saw the picture above it made me think that sometimes when we ask Him to “take the wheel” its not because we want Him to “direct our paths”, but rather that we want Him to take responsibility for our bad choices. We have no intention at all of changing direction, but we are able to relax and sit back while the world revolves around us for a while.

The thing is, when we ask Jesus to take the wheel, we have to be prepared for the fact that sometimes it will feel very much like the wheels have fallen off and we are in danger of having an accident.

I guess if  that happens, it’s really important that Jesus also takes the steering wheel as it’s the only way we are going to survive without getting really hurt.

Are we prepared to give Him control? To allow Him to really take us to where He wants us? Are we confident enough in His love for us that we end up off the beaten track, away from any sort of safety, that we can trust Him?

In life, the wheels can feel like they are falling off either for the choices we have made, because of enemy attack, or because God is teaching us a lesson. There is no better time in these situations to surrender complete control to Him. No matter what we face, whether sustained ill health, financial hardship or emotional turmoil, there is one who will faithfully stand with you through it all.

I wish I could guarantee that in doing that, everything would miraculously change for the better. That the hardships would suddenly end. I can’t do that.  I have seen that happen for some. I am convinced it should and could happen far more than we currently experience, but I also know that it simply doesn’t happen every time. #

What I can guarantee though is that the journey through the hardship will be filled with joy and peace that comes from resting in the loving arms of a Father who has promised never to leave us.

If it feels like the wheels of your life have fallen off at the moment, may I encourage you to continue to pray for breakthrough, but at the same time, give Jesus control of the situation, and rest in the peace of the knowledge that He really does know what He is doing, and His ways are often very different to ours.

Starting at the start

I’ve written before about the way we seem to think that Holy Spirit needs to wait before coming into our services and joining us.  We have organised our church meetings so that we sing the faster, more upbeat songs first, before getting more contemplative when we are ready for Holy Spirit to come and begin to minister to and through us.

What if if when we walked in to a room, Holy Spirit was there waiting for us? What if we didn’t need to invite Him each time we wanted to have a meeting? What if we started at 100 miles an hour rather than building up to it and just as we get close to top speed have to bring it all to a close because we have run out of the allotted time?

Recently, I walked into a room where it felt like that was exactly what was happening. I was there to worship, minister and listen to teaching, as I have several time before. this time was a bit different though. The chairs had been moved away so that people could move freely. There was already an expectancy in the room.

As I walked around, at times it felt like there were bursts of electricity, like the sort you may get from a van der Graaff generator. It was like heaven was there – all you had to do was to reach out and touch it.

I had a picture of a ‘moving walkway’, like the sort you find between airport terminals or in some large train stations. The whole point of these things is to move large numbers of people in the same direction as quickly as possible. As the distance to be traveled is often large, the effort needed to travel that distance is reduced, as the moving walkway takes the strain. One can move five to ten steps with the effort of just one.  As with the Van der Graaff picture above, I felt that there was an invitation to step onto something that was going to move us a significant distance down our Christian experience, with very little effort from us. All we had to do was to step on to the walkway. Of course, it would be possible to reach the same destination with hard work, dedication and effort, but at least for that evening, I felt that God was saying – let me do the hard work, just come along for the ride. (the walkway in this picture was a bit strange in that it was possible to step onto it wherever one was – the journey and destination were the same)

What I found interesting about this was that we didn’t have to wait for the worship to start for this experience to take place. Holy Spirit was there already, waiting for us. It was as if He had been attracted by the hunger expressed in the building in days leading up to this particular event, and He had remained, waiting, expectant and ready to bless again, in greater measure than before.

The concept that God might simply “be” in a place isn’t a new one. Way back at creation, the Spirit of God was “hovering over the surface of the deep”. The Israelite knew that the Ark of the Covenant was where God could be found and where He met them. Later, the Holy place in the Temple was where the priests would ‘meet’ with God.

I really do believe that we can create an environment that attracts heaven. It really does matter what happens in a space before we meet. When we worship ‘in Spirit and in truth’ heaven comes. Others will notice. What heaven has to offer is attractive. And what happens in a building matters.

The thing is that not everyone has access to their church building before the weekly service. I would love it if ‘life’ meant we could (and would) meet every day to worship, to create an atmosphere that makes heaven turn its head and come to join us, but experience says that isn’t realistic (yet!) The building we can make sure is available for Holy Spirit to invade at all times is ourselves. Imagine what our church services might be like if we turned up on a Sunday, already on the moving walkway, accelerating towards whatever was on heavens heart for that day. What would that look like?

I imagine it would be different for each of us, and different each time we stepped on. It might feel like peace. It might feel like joy, with outrageous laughter. It might feel like courage, and we rush out to tell the world about the Jesus who loves them. There might be a weightiness and we might find ourselves unable to stand. The only thing we could be sure of is that if the destination is heavens heart, it would be worth the ride.

Let’s not wait for the third song this weekend. Let’s arrive ready to experience all that heaven has for us this week. And lets keep the building that hosts Holy Spirit here on earth a hospitable place so that we don’t have to work at church next week either.

All change for 2020?

If previous years are anything to go by, in a day or two there will be a number of statements along the lines of “I’m glad to see the back of 2019, here’s hoping 2020 is an improvement.” I’ve never really jumped on that wagon, but I am very tempted to this year. 2019 has been one of the toughest I have experienced emotionally. Situations far outside my control have, and in some cases continue to challenge me and my faith to breaking point. I long for change. I long to experience a less emotional and testing 12 months.

On one hand I’d rather nothing changed. I just about have things under some sort of control, where if not ideal at least known and manageable. On the other hand, I have no desire at all for things to continue as they are.

I can cope with a bit of variation, but not too much and certainly not too often.

I go to work Monday to Friday, and have a pretty good idea of what I will be faced with. Church on a Sunday follows a tried and tested format. The meals for the week, whilst enjoyed on different days are familiar.

It is often said that the main obstacle to change in our lives is found between our ears. It is definitely an excuse I have (and do) use for lack of exercise. There seems to be a constant battle in my mind between the need to exercise more, and the inability to exercise more because I have neglected it so much in the past. The constant discussion in my mind trying to rationalise each position means that I continue to sit on the sofa rather than simply getting up, putting on a pair of shoes and leaving the house, even if it is just to walk round the block.

If you have spent significant time with me in the past few years, you will know that one of the main prayers I pray for myself, and have others pray for me, is that I will know more of the Fathers love, experience more of the abundance He has for me. To be brave enough to step out in confidence that He really does have my back, and that He wants to use me to change the world. That I would be obedient to His call on my life.

To realise any of that means things will have to change. God can and will use me as I am, but He loves me far too much to leave me there. Try as I might to keep some sort of constant in my life, one of the things that is required of me as a Christian is that I change. One part of me has little control over this. My spirit, the part of me that was made a new when I became a Christian is being transformed from one degree of glory to another. I, you, “ we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) I am glorious. You are glorious. We are becoming more and more glorious, and it is something we are simply going to have to get used to. It is happening as we are being made more and more like Jesus.

The other part that has to be changed is my mind. As I alluded to earlier, it is the changing of how I think, how I process things that needs to be changed. This is something I have control over. I can choose to believe things. I can make truth statements which will transform my mind. It is important to ensure that the things I transform my mind to believe are Kingdom truths. For that, it is vital that I search for these truths in the right places.

Having already told us that if we are “in Christ” we are a new creation you could be forgiven for struggling with the concept that we still need to change.

Let me try and explain it like this. I believe the bible teaches that we are made up of three parts (just as the Godhead is made up of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.)  We have a body – our external, physical layer. We have a spirit, which is our inner core, the part that is sensitive to God. We also have a soul. This is our mind, our will and our emotions.  It is that part that needs to change. Our spirit man (or woman)  has been made new. Our soul is the part where there is a battle between our new identity and the old one. Winning that battle takes determination on our part. We can’t expect to simply sit back and wait for God to do something. There has to be movement on our part. We need to change, to be transformed, to resolve that we are going to start thinking and acting differently.

For someone that doesn’t do well with change, especially with change happening around me, the thought of having to change me as well can be daunting. Fortunately, we have the assurance that whatever is happening around us or within us there is one thing that doesn’t change. Malachi 3:6 reminds us that God will not change. He will be the one constant throughout whatever 2020 brings. It is because of the confidence we can have in that fact, that we can “risk” allowing ourselves to change. It is precisely because He doesn’t that we must. The thing is, there are clear benefits. Not only will we feel better about ourselves (for which of us doesn’t beat ourselves up when we get it wrong) we will have a much clear vision of what God wants for us, for our family, for our church. The more we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, the more our minds will reflect the truth that Paul tells us “we have the mind of Christ.”

As we head into 2020, I pray that with me you will resolve to allow Holy Spirit to transform us.

Let’s start living in the reality of being a new creation (in our spirit) and taking whatever steps are necessary to allow our minds to catch up. Let’s be brave, knowing that we have the mind of Christ and speak out boldly, knowing that He will catch us if we fail, and love us regardless. Let’s live like we really are glorious, not beating ourselves up for past (or current) failures, seeking out the glory in others.

Let’s make 2020 a year when change doesn’t scare us, its simply a vehicle to discover more of God and His will for us here on planet earth.

Overflow at Christmas

If not a tendency, there is certainly a stereotype that us Brits are good at accepting less than the best. You know the sort of thing I mean – we are British and therefore we don’t expect too much, whether that be from the weather, our friends and family or our general lot in life. Things are just the way they are and with a stiff upper lip, we will just get on with things. The keep calm and carry on spirit is part of British culture that doesn’t show any sign of abatement. I dare say that a good number of otherwise curable ailments are left too long simply because “we don’t want to cause any bother”.

I follow a twitter account called Very British Problems which epitomises this stereotype. They tweet things like “Brit 1: ‘Hope you had a great weekend’. Brit 2: ‘I did thank you! Hope you did too!’  Translation: both had very plain weekends.”

What is said in jest hides a reality that for the Christian can be very restricting.

If there is one thing true about our experience of God thus far it is that there is more to be experienced. It doesn’t matter if you have been a Christian for decades or days, God has abundantly, exceedingly more for us to discover about Him and His love for us.

The danger is that at least for us Brits, we experience a little and become satisfied. It’s as if we don’t believe we are due any more. What if there isn’t enough to go around? I we get too much, others won’t have the same experience, and that simply wouldn’t be fair, or British.

Back in 2001, Paul Oakley wrote a song that has a decidedly unBritish line in it.

“You fill my cup, and when I’m full, You give me more ‘till I overflow.”

I love that. We know from James 1 that “if anyone lacks wisdom he should ask God, who gives generously without reproach and it will be given him.” The truth is that God is in the business of exceeding our expectations. There is more than enough to go around.

Ephesians 5:18 tells us that we shouldn’t get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.  The Amplified bible translates the second part of that verse, “but ever be filled and stimulated with the Holy Spirit.

It’s not supposed to be a one time thing that happens when we become Christians. It’s something that should happen on a daily basis. God knows what He is doing. We humans are prone to leak. Some of us leak more than others. The question is what are you leaking over? And perhaps more importantly, is the leak a gush or a trickle?

I think if many of us are honest with ourselves, our “ever filled” situation is restricted to Sunday mornings and the odd mid week meeting. If we miss one of these for some reason, or the preacher “isn’t up to their usual standard” we find ourselves heading into the coming week with less than the ideal amount of fuel to successfully navigate all that life has in store for us.

We then find ourselves woefully unequipped for the opportunity to tell our friends and family about the ‘hope that is within us’(1 Peter 3:15) because we don’t have the words to say.

I think the beautiful thing about being filled to overflowing, and our perpetual leaking is that we often don’t need words. Our overflow is witness enough. That overflow will manifest in a number of different ways, and may be different for each person we encounter. From simply being there and changing an atmosphere, to hugging someone to tell them they are loved, to quietly praying while things go on around us, people will notice the difference. If the overflow from us is a gentle trickle, it may take weeks, months or years for that difference to be noticed. It may even go unnoticed. If however we have taken God at His word and allowed ourselves to be filled on a constant basis it is inevitable that we will spring more leaks. Before we know it, everything we come in contact with will be wet, perhaps even saturated with the presence and love of God.

The capacity for overflow is not restricted to the container. (The amount of overflow may be, but the capacity for it to happen is not.) The only restriction to how much God is able to pour in to us depends on whether we move from the downspout, or place a cap or lid on.

There are a number of ways that we can ensure we are in a position to receive. Perhaps the most important one though is the removal of the lid. To say to God that we are willing to be filled. To allow Him to pour as much as He wants in to us. To be very Un-British about it. To put aside our traditions (those we do for traditions sake rather than because we actually mean them) and allow Him to do whatever He wants through us.

I can’t promise you a smooth ride if you do. You are often going to find yourself in a place where you have no clue what is going on. To quote K in Men in Black, when asked if joining Men in Black was worth it – “Oh yeah – its worth it.”

This Christmas many of us will find ourselves spending time with people who challenge us. Be that Aunt Mabel who always expects everything to be brought to her and never does anything to help, or Uncle Sydney who drinks too much and makes inappropriate comments to your friends who have popped in for a quick Christmas catch up.

If we have taken God seriously at His word and allowed ourselves to be being filled with Holy Spirit, if we have opened ourselves up to overflow and leaking in gushes rather than trickles, we may find that we don’t have to do much to change the atmosphere and spread Truth in our homes, offices and gatherings this Christmas.

May you all know the Presence of God this Christmas – may His Love surround you and those you love at this time.

Is it time to change the Nativity?

Christmas.

A time when the church tells the story of the birth of Jesus.

A time when the world hears of a young girl, travelling over difficult terrain, arrives in the dead of night, can’t find a bed and gives birth that very night in a dirty outbuilding surrounded by animals. If you believe the many depictions of the “stable” that have appeared these animals included cows, pigs, horses and giraffes.

Just after the birth (which we are led to believe was a “silent night”, despite the fact that it is very rare for animals to be silent, the door bursts open, and a load of smelly visitors arrive, closely followed by better smelling visitors with better quality gifts.

And we wonder why the world struggles to believe one of the key messages of the Christian story, that God put skin on and came to dwell with us. That the baby would grow, and eventually give His life to a cruel death by crucifixion in order to give us access to the Father, that we too might live.

We as Christians have a problem.

The world we live in demands a neatly packaged message, with all the key points in one place. So that is what the church has done with the Christmas story. All the key points, Mary and Joseph, unmarried, Mary pregnant, head to Bethlehem, baby born, Angels, visitors and gifts. All presented as the standard nativity. Everything happens within a 24-hr period so we can all get home for hot chocolate and mince pies.

But they also demand a story that makes sense when examined in detail. That is where the church has fallen short. You see, the story, as presented in nativity plays up and down the country has kept to the same basic script, and not really looked at whether it sounds plausible.

Take the stable, manger and inn for example. We all have a mental image of what that looks like. Our brains see these words and we envisage a Travelodge (other hotels are available), a barn on a dirty farm, probably miles from anywhere, and a wooden box, filled with straw. The church has conveniently concocted lessons from each of these, but the story has never quite sat comfortably with me.

The bible says that Mary & Joseph went to Bethlehem, and “while they were there, the time came for her to give birth”. Not on the night they arrived, but some time afterward. Where were they staying? Had they had a booking at the local motel, but had run out of money? Perhaps they had more distinguished guests that needed the room? The fact is that Bethlehem at the time of Jesus birth was not a large enough town to have a requirement for a hotel, or inn. The primary reason for there being no room in the “inn” is that there wasn’t one.

We are told that Joseph was a descendant of King David. That alone would have afforded him access to pretty much any home in the town. Match that with a pregnant fiancée, and there isn’t a community in the world that would not have welcomed them in.  If there really wasn’t room in a house, there would have been plenty of time for Mary & Joseph to travel the short distance to Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah. They lived nearby (Mary had visited a few months earlier.)

Houses in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus would have consisted of two rooms. One, the family room, where the entire family lived. They would have eaten, slept and entertained in this room. An attached room would have been at a slightly lower level to house the family animals. The animals would have been brought in at night to keep them safe. Perhaps there would have been small hollows between the two rooms filled with water to allow the animals to drink. Hay would have been held in nets to provide food. Some houses would have had an additional room added – a guest room. The word our bibles translate as “inn” can also mean guest room.

How about this for a paraphrase of events.

Mary and Joseph headed to Bethlehem, because there was to be a census, and Joseph was from Bethlehem. Although Mary was pregnant, there was plenty of time to make the journey and get settled. They stayed with one of Josephs relatives. Lots of people had returned for the census, so all the homes were a bit tight for space. Some people who had arrived early had taken up residence in the guest room, so Mary and Joseph had to squeeze in with the rest of the family.

While they were still there, Mary gave birth, surrounded by friends and family. She would have liked to have been in the guest room, but it was full, and moving the occupants out in the middle of the night wasn’t really practical. Conveniently, there was a small hollow for watering the animals, so they emptied that, and filled it with straw from the nets above and the baby was placed there to sleep.

Shepherds, who were the lowest of the low in Jewish society were watching their sheep that night, but they also had a really important role.

Suddenly an Angel appeared and told them not to be afraid. They thought it was a reasonable emotion, but listened to what the Angel said, and headed down to Bethlehem and found things, just as the Angel had said. They were aware of who they had found. They knew He was the Christ. And they worshipped, and then went back to their fields. Had they felt that the Saviour of the world was living in an inappropriate place, or at the very least less salubrious than their own homes, do you not think they would have offered to rehome the new family?

I mentioned that the shepherds had an important role. It was they that raised the sheep that would be used for sacrifice. It was they that would examine the lamb to ensure it was spotless and acceptable. It was no accident that the shepherds were the first to welcome the baby who would be the lamb that would be offered as a sacrifice for sins for the world.

A couple of years later, astrologers from Arabia came looking for the new King. They brought gifts fit for a King, for they knew the importance of this birth. They had gone to the Palace in Jerusalem initially. They found a King, but not a young child. The King they found was troubled by the request as he knew he didn’t really have any right to be on the throne. He wasn’t a Jew, and the prospect of being overthrown by another filled him with dread.

The Magi kept their gifts, knowing that there was another, worthy recipient.

My concern has long been that in changing the story we present something that can easily be dismissed as myth by the very people we are supposed to be loving into the Kingdom. The Gospel is too important to water down to make it palatable. The beauty of the bible is that it tells the good side and the bad side, not avoiding the mistakes but explaining in graphic detail the consequences of making them. It also beautifully gives us an insight into the blessings that are ours if we do what it says.

We don’t have to embellish the story to make it mysterious. We still find Angels, virgin births, and dreams. Perhaps if we start telling it like it was, rather than how “we have always told it” more people would see the truth of the story, and would want to meet the Jesus that came to earth to dwell with us, to reconcile us to the Father, and who wants to give hope and purpose to our lives.

(I unashamedly used Kenneth Bailey “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, cultural studies in the gospels” as a source for this blog. Any difference in interpretation to his original work as I paraphrased is entirely my own)